Queer Women History Forgot: Elaine Noble

The out lesbian made history, winning a seat in the House of Representatives in 1975.

For Women’s History Month, GO is celebrating LGBTQ women we wish we could have learned about in high school history class.

Elaine Noble was the first openly lesbian or gay candidate elected to a state legislature. A Boston-based politician, she served two terms in the Massachusetts House of Representatives from January 1975 through 1979, just a few years after the Stonewall Riots and three years before Harvey Milk would be murdered in San Francisco.

Noble obtained degrees from Boston University Emerson College and Harvard before running for office. During her campaign (which she described as “very ugly”), she was harassed and her car, home and campaign headquarters were all subject to vandalism. During this time, she had a relationship with activist/author Rita Mae Brown, but the amount of harassment the women faced was too wearing on her Still, Noble won with 59% of the vote, making history and becoming part of the first delegation of out politicians invited to the White House to discuss LGBT issues under President Jimmy Carter. The Globe writes of her time in office:

“[Noble ran] a campaign during which she was open about her sexuality, but deliberately avoided making it the focus of her candidacy. Instead, Noble sold herself as a problem-solver who could help constituents with potholes, absentee landlords, and rising rents—and who also happened to be a lesbian. Though Noble, who could not be reached for an interview, was moderate in her politics, there was something subtly radical in the underlying premise of her campaign: that being gay did not define her. And there was something radical, too, in the fact that, while she did face intense homophobic attacks during her campaign, her fellow Bostonians, like no other Americans before them, were ready to send an openly gay candidate to a state-level office.”

Photo by LGBThistorymonth.com

“I was elected in a largely Irish Catholic town,” Noble said in a 2007 interview. “I was elected in spite of being gay. In the height of desegregation in Boston, I was riding on the buses with children of color. The gay community was just as racist as the straight community. So I had a lot of issues around race.”

Noble decided not to campaign for her seat in the House a third time once redistricting would have had her competing against good friend Barney Frank. (It was Frank’s sister, Ann Lewis, who initially encouraged Noble to run for office.) Instead, she ran for Senate, ultimately coming in fifth. Noble went to work for Boston Mayor Kevin White and, in the ’90s, tried for a spot in the city council of Cambridge, Mass.

In 2013, WGBH released A Woman’s Place Is in the House: A Portrait of Elaine Noble, a documentary about Noble’s life and career, detailing pivotal moments like her refusing to speak at an event for NOW (National Organization for Women) because of their anti-lesbian policies (they have since changed). Noble said she left politics “exhausted,” and now lives in Florida with her partner, working as a substitute teacher and selling real estate. She says of her time in politics: “You do what you can and then move on.”

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